$20M state grant released to Alaska schools, but future funding remains unclear

The Juneau school board meets on June 11, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

School districts across Alaska are looking forward to a bump in their bank accounts. The Department of Education and Early Development has released funds — $20 million altogether — ending a months-long waiting game for Alaska schools. But the outlook for state education spending is far from clear.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Juneau superintendent Bridget Weiss was happy to have good news to share.

“This is again money that we have planned on, so we’re thrilled that it is scheduled to be dispersed,” Weiss said.

Like Juneau, school districts around the state have been planning on that money for over a year — and spending with that in mind. Last May, the Alaska Legislature approved a one-time grant of $20 million for public schools, to be delivered this fiscal year. After years of flat funding public education, lawmakers hoped the money would help school districts meet rising costs — and ease some of the uncertainty they face each year as they wait for a new state budget.

But it didn’t work out that way. In January, Governor Mike Dunleavy proposed cutting that $20 million in school funding as part of his amended supplemental budget. School districts had expected to see the money arrive early this year, but the administration waited to see if the Legislature would approve the cut.

It didn’t. Heidi Teshner, director of administrative services for the state education department, confirmed the funds were processed on Monday and were expected to appear in school district bank accounts Wednesday — just over two weeks before the close of this fiscal year.

FY20 begins July 1, and school funding remains an open — and contested — question.

That’s because back in May 2018, when lawmakers approved education spending for the current year (FY19), they also agreed to forward fund public schools for the upcoming year (FY20). That includes the normal per-student funding districts receive from the state and another, even larger one-time grant of $30 million.

Superintendents like Lauren Burch of Southeast Island Schools celebrated the move. But it hasn’t turned out as he hoped.

“The forward-funding idea was brilliant, but the governor’s been tangling that up, and it’s pretty hard to predict. So that leaves everything pretty unsettled,” Burch said.

That tangle could turn into a lawsuit. The Dunleavy administration says forward funding schools was unconstitutional and told lawmakers if they want school districts to receive funds come July, they must write it into the new budget. But the Legislature disagrees, and didn’t. It says the governor is bound by last year’s law, and it’s preparing to sue the administration to pay school districts.

As July 1 approaches, school districts across the state are watching and waiting. Juneau superintendent Bridget Weiss hopes it won’t be long.

Lawmakers say they hope to avoid the lawsuit. School districts typically receive their first payments of the new fiscal year in mid-July.

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